We can see the importance of this word in what God said about the feast that is called by that name—the Feast of the Atonement, or the Day of Atonement. As we have looked at the other feasts that God ordained for the early Israelites, we saw that he gave clear instructions that the feasts were to be “permanent statutes wherever you live for the generations to come.”
But for the Feast of Atonement, the requirements were even more demanding. For this feast, the Lord also said to Moses, “If anyone does not humble himself on this day, he must be cut off from his people. I will destroy from among his people anyone who does any work on this day” (Leviticus 23:29-30 BSB).
Why such a severe punishment for neglecting this feast? Why is it that this concept of atonement is so important to God?
What is Atonement?
The word that we have translated as atonement is the Hebrew word kippur. You have heard of the Jewish day of Yom Kippur. This is the day. This is the Day of Atonement. It is still the most important religious day in the Jewish calendar. To understand why this word and this concept are so important, one must go back to the very dawn of time.
The word kippur is a derivative of another Hebrew word, kopher. This word kopher is actually a rather utilitarian word, and first appears in the Bible for the pitch used by Noah to “cover” the wood of the ark. Mostly however, the word is translated in the Bible as the ransom paid in order to recover something that had been lost, or even a ransom paid for a life of a person.
This use of the word as a ransom paid can be seen in some the laws and directives that God gave to Moses for establishing order in their nation. As an example, God told Moses that if a farmer’s ox was known to be aggressive, then the owner must take steps to restrain it. If he did not, and the ox was on the loose and then gored someone to death, as a penalty, both the ox and the owner were to be put to death.
However, there was an alternative. The family of the person killed could instead demand a ransom. God said, “If a ransom is demanded of him instead, the guilty man may redeem his life by paying the full amount demanded of him” (Exodus 21:30).
This word used for ransom is also the word kopher. It is a payment given as a cover to pay for the life of the guilty man.
This commonality between these two things: a ransom paid to reclaim something, and a substance that Noah used in the ark, can be found in the concept of covering something. Noah used it for the very practical use of covering the wood of the ark, and the owner of the ox used it for a cover for his very life.
We see this concept of covering first in the Garden of Eden. You will remember that when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit that God had instructed them not to eat, they took leaves of a fig to cover their nakedness. We tend to think of these acts only in a physical sense, but it is more important to think of them especially in a spiritual sense.
Remember that Adam and Eve where distinct from all the other created beings, in that they alone, among all other creatures, were created in God’s own image. They were a special creation to God. When they ate the forbidden fruit, they were expressing rebellion against their creator. They were asserting their own wills and volition above that of God. This is rebellion in its most basic and authentic form. With that single act of rebellion, the image of God in them was destroyed.
For the first time in their lives, Adam and Eve became ashamed. They realized that now in this state of asserting their own wills above God, the image of God in them had become corrupted. In their attempt to cover what they had done, the man and the woman sewed together fig leaves to cover their nakedness.
This act of sewing the fig leaves was the physical expression of something that occurred spiritually. That which God had made in His very image had now been corrupted, and where there is corruption, not only is there shame, but there is also death.
This attempt by Adam and Eve to cover their rebellious deed with leaves was their best effort at regaining life. Of course, it was not adequate. God instead made for them garments—a covering made from skin, presumably from a hide of an animal.
From this act by God, we see the beginnings of the concept of atonement—something used to cover an offense against God. In this we perhaps can at least partially understand the strict prohibition against work on this Day of Atonement. Adam and Eve hoped that they, by their own efforts, could cover the fact that the image of God had been destroyed in them. But of course, they could not.
The rebellion that Adam and Eve exhibited against the sovereignty of God is the fundamental meaning of sin, and the final outcome of sin is certain death (Romans 6:23). God made a covering for them to diminish the shame of putting the image of God within them to death. The skin of the animal that had been sacrificed for that purpose was intended as covering for the spiritual death within the man and woman. It was not an entirely adequate covering, but it was better than the man’s best effort to do so.
That covering of skin made by God, although still not the perfect ransom, pointed ahead to the fact that God would one day institute the Old Testament sacrificial system under Moses. Important in this is that this payment of ransom required a death, in this case the death of an undeserving animal.
This pattern of animal sacrifice for offenses against God that we first see with Adam and Eve was continued all throughout the Old Testament. These types of sacrifices were used also as acts of worship to God. They are all part of the Old Testament Law, and we see it also in the feasts given to the Israelites during the exodus years.
The Day of Atonement was the very day in which the people were to express their complete dependence upon God. The feast was meant to demonstrate to them that they were completely at God’s mercy. It was by the mercies of God that they existed and were sustained, just as Adam and Eve were dependent upon God for an adequate covering for the fact that they had rebelled against His Lordship.
The Death of the Just for the Unjust
We may ask why this undeserving death of another was necessary in order to pay a ransom. The truth is that we do not know the complete answer to this question. What we do know is that this eternal truth of the need for an innocent third-party sacrifice was to eventually have its greatest cost in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was the ultimate fulfillment of all of the Old Testament Laws.
It is in understanding this background to the Old Testament sacrificial system and how it was all meant to point to the eventual price paid by Jesus for our redemption that we see why the Feast of Atonement was so important to God. This feast in particular was important in that it pointed ahead to the ultimate and perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Jesus told the people of his time, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18 BSB).
Part of that fulfillment was also as Jesus told the people, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
This word ransom is a very specific word and used only by Jesus in the New Testament and only on this occasion. It refers to the “purchasing money for manumitting slaves (freeing from the owner).” In other words, it is literally a ransom paid.
It was when Jesus offered himself up for sacrifice that he paid the final ransom for the complete forgiveness of the rebellious nature of man. To neglect this feast was to spurn the tremendous price of the ransom sacrificed for every person. In the days of Moses, anyone who would neglect to observe the Feast of Atonement was to be “cut off” and “destroyed,” or should “perish.”
The Perfect Sacrifice
All of this points to the work and the words of Jesus, when he said that, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life,” and that “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned.”
But alternatively, “Whoever does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
And what is the offense of those who refuse to believe? It is “That the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:16-19). The lovers of darkness will be judged based on the fact that they had the opportunity to see and accept the redemption offered by God, but refused.
These are the reasons that the Feast of the Atonement was so important to God, and why the consequences of neglecting this feast were so severe. To do so was to spurn what had cost the Lord God the death of his only Son, Jesus Christ. When Jesus was sacrificed in order to pay the ransom for our sin, there was great agony within the tri-unity of God. It is obvious that Jesus felt pain, but God the Father also felt great pain, as well as the Spirit of Christ.
The Feast of the Atonement
To return to the actual feast as originally dictated to Moses, here is what God said in Leviticus 23:
The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. You shall hold a sacred assembly and humble yourselves, and present an offering made by fire to the LORD.
On this day you are not to do any work, for it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the LORD your God. If anyone does not humble himself on this day, he must be cut off from his people. I will destroy from among his people anyone who does any work on this day.
You are not to do any work at all. This is a permanent statute for the generations to come, wherever you live. It will be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall humble yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to keep your Sabbath.” (Leviticus 23:26-32 BSB)
Animal sacrifices played a central role in most of the feasts, and it is not surprising that they were especially important in the Feast of Atonement. There is quite a lengthy explanation of the sacrifices done on that day in the book of Leviticus, chapter sixteen. I will not go through the entire chapter, but I think it significant for us to point out one part of it. This is the reading of it:
When Aaron presents the bull for his sin offering and makes atonement for himself and his household, he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. Then he must take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense, and take them inside the veil.
He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the cloud of incense will cover the mercy seat above the Testimony, so that he will not die. And he is to take some of the bull’s blood and sprinkle it with his finger on the east side of the mercy seat; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the mercy seat. (Leviticus 16:11-16 BSB)
The Ark of the Covenant
When speaking of the offerings made by the high priest Aaron and how he sprinkled the blood, it is important to understand something about the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. The temple area consisted of the outer courtyard, the inner courtyard, and the temple building itself. The temple building also was divided into two sections, those of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.
It is the last of these, the Holy of Holies, that we are considering here. It was in this small room (15 ft x 15 ft, but also 15 ft high) into which only the high priest was allowed to enter, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement.
It was also here where the Ark of the Covenant was located. The Ark of the Covenant was a chest-like vessel covered with gold plate. Inside the ark were the stones engraved with the Ten Commandments. These were called the “Testimony.” They embodied the concept of the Old Testament Law, or the “Law of Moses.”
The ark itself was a covered by a lid made of gold. This lid had two golden cherubim facing one another with wings outstretched and overshadowing the cover. This cover was also called the “Mercy Seat.” It was on this Mercy Seat and in between the two cherubim where it was understood to be the dwelling of God.
I would like to point out that the Law of God was inside of the ark. This was the law which all people are required to obey. If the people were to have a relationship with God, they were required to obey these laws and to live without fault. This of course was impossible in that day, and it remains impossible for us today. The main point of the Law of God was to demonstrate that the standards for perfect obedience is impossible for any man or woman. We all fail. The holiness of God is too perfect for us to attain.
But this Law was “covered” by a lid that was appropriately called the “Mercy Seat.” It was here on the Mercy Seat where God was said to dwell, and from which God communicated with Moses.
The word in Hebrew for this mercy seat is “kapporeth.” If that word has a familiar sound to you, it should, because it is related to the words kippur and kopher, words that mean or are at least associated with our word atonement.
It is significant that God did not speak to Moses from within the ark, where the Law was located. God spoke from the covering of atonement. He spoke from that which kept the Law hidden. The Lord God spoke from the place of mercy, not from the Law. God knew long before any of us did that we could never have a relationship with him based upon our own ability to keep his holy standards and by our ability to keep his law. In this we all fail.
Our relationship with God can be based only on His mercy.
How Should We Escape?
This is what the Feast of the Atonement was to teach the people of the Old Testament. It is also what it can teach us.
But we no longer sacrifice a bull on the Day of Atonement. We no longer sprinkle his blood upon the Mercy Seat. Why did we stop?
The reason that we have stopped is perhaps best expressed by the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews, most pointedly in chapter ten of his book. He tells us that these types of sacrifices of the Old Testament were “only a shadow of the good things to come, not the realities themselves.”
He makes the point that those sacrifices offered year after year never perfected any person who came to the temple to worship. If those sacrifices had been adequate to provide the ransom, he points out, there would have been no need to repeat them. If those sacrifices would have been complete, the worshipers would have been absolved of their sins and no longer would have felt guilt.
But the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement were repeated every year. Besides this, there were other sacrifices for sin that were repeated on a daily basis—every day a new sacrifice. Nevertheless, not only did the sacrifices not absolve the worshipers of their sin, but as the writer of Hebrews says, they were “mere annual reminders of sins, since it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
In the days of Moses and the Old Testament, the priest would stand day after day, making the same offerings again and again. These could never take away sins. They were a temporary “covering,” much like the covering that God made for Adam and Eve. The Old Testament sacrifices were not the final solution.
Then what is the final solution? It was only when Christ came into the world that he taught that at the deepest level, God does not desire burnt offerings and sin offerings. God does not actually delight in these things, even if they are done according to the Old Testament Law.
The Old Testament sacrifices were not wrong—that is not the point. The true point is that they were mere shadows of the reality. What they needed was the true body of that which was casting the shadow. What the Old Testament sacrifices needed was their completion.
We have read that Jesus said that he did not come to earth to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it. In this fulfillment, Jesus completed the will of God the Father. “I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 5:30).
With the sacrifice that Jesus fulfilled by offering his own body upon the altar, he brought perfection to the sacrificial system. Since the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross brought perfection to the sacrificial system, there is no need to continually repeat the sacrifice. Jesus himself showed us this in that when His sacrifice had been complete. At the last, just before he hung his head in death, with his final breath he uttered the phrase of completion, “It is finished.”
This was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice. It was the complete ransom paid to redeem us from the slavery to sin. Jesus did not need to repeat this sacrifice as was necessary with the inadequate coverings of the Old Testament sacrificial system. With the completion of this single and perfect sacrifice, Jesus sat down on the right hand of God.
“By a single offering,” says the writer of Hebrews, “He has made perfect for all time those who are being sanctified.”
The Lesson of the Feast
This is what the Feast of the Atonement can teach us today. The day of the feast was not perfect in itself, but it pointed to what was perfected in Jesus Christ.
The neglect of that day in the time of Moses carried with it severe consequences. Those who refused this atonement were to be cut off from the people and to perish. If this was the case with the imperfect, how do we think it will be with the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins?
As the writer puts it, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3).
Apart from the sacrifice of Jesus, there is no escape. “Salvation exists in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 BSB).
The need for atonement is one of the greatest and most important teachings of the Bible.